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Google vs. Grandmom vs. Tom Clancy

Some of the warmest responses I ever received to a Search Insider column were for a column that fittingly had almost nothing to do with search. It was called “Google vs. Grandmom,” the story of my grandmother’s quest to embrace the Internet.
Over the course of her life, that’s been among the most trivial of her trials. I’m proud to share here, if you’ll forgive the digression, that my grandmother is now a published author. I read her book Through Siberia with Bed & Babies: A Holocaust Survivor’s Joys & Sorrows when I went to visit her Memorial Day weekend, and it’s amazing how well she was able to capture her life story, mostly from the 1939 through the 1960s. She’s also featured in Holocaust Survivors of South Jersey: Portraits of Resilience.
When making my way through her book, it was hard to read about so many of her family members who were murdered, people who have no descendants to read their memoirs. Yet in moving beyond that, I can’t resist taking pride in this most recent of my grandmother’s myriad accomplishments – alas, one she couldn’t share with her husband and my namesake, David Berkowitz.
For those who care to read the original column, it’s available at MediaPost and reprinted below in the extended entry, as the column pre-dated this blog by about two months.

Google vs. Grandmom
by David Berkowitz, Tuesday, Sep 20, 2005 2:15 PM ET
I’M SO STUPID,” SHE SAID, either
to the computer or to me, or perhaps both. My poor grandmother. She
survived the Nazis, the Russians, and the Poles. She braved postwar
anti-Semitism in Germany. She immigrated to the United States with her
husband (my namesake) and two children, raising them on a chicken farm
in New Jersey. This woman has known hardships the likes of which I
could never imagine.

Now, with my help, she’s trying to fulfill her greatest challenge: mastering the Internet.

Even knowing her life resume, I’m convinced this is one challenge she
can’t win. But it’s not her fault. The Internet’s simply too powerful
to be simple. A computer is not just a TV upgrade, just as newspapers
were not just an upgrade from the town crier. As easy as the point,
click, search concept may be for us, the Web’s on-ramp is slanted a
little too deep to accommodate everyone.

One theme that arose during the computer lesson I gave my grandmother
is that she has not been trained to ignore vast swaths of information.
For instance, she uses Mozilla Thunderbird for e-mail (I forgot to
mention — my grandmother’s cool), and she always reads the welcome
screen over and over aloud: “Features: Adaptive Junk Mail Controls. RSS
Reader. Global Inbox Support.” Similarly, when I show her a Google
search, she reads the “Business Solutions” link on the home page and
the links bar atop the search results when conducting a query. That’s
too much information, even in the nmost streamlined of interfaces. If I
tried to explain why some things are important to read and some aren’t,
I don’t think I’d have made much sense to her.

During my visit with her, two days before the lesson, I found a reason
to Google something for Grandmom. She was telling me how she’d attended
a rousing local lecture by Daniel Libeskind, the architect designing
the Freedom Tower, which will rise in the footprints of the World Trade
Center. Recounting the story, she said she couldn¹t wait to see what
the building would look like. I told her I could show her — through a
search engine, of course.

I opened Firefox, which defaulted to the Google search page. Then I
typed in “new World Trade Center design” (as the building’s moniker had
escaped me), and clicked the link to the Lower Manhattan Development
Corporation site. It was all a cinch for me, and a blur for her. I knew
what I was looking for existed, I knew how to search for it, and I knew
the LMDC site, renewnyc.com (ranked first), would have the answers.
None of this is intuitive for an Internet newbie.

I’ve also realized that for my grandmother, searching in general is
counterintuitive. She always has an answer to everything. I could just
picture her response if someone suggested that she turn to a search
engine for answers.

On searching for driving directions: “You think I don’t know where I¹m  going?”

On searching for recipes: “What, you don’t like my cooking?”

On searching for product recommendations: “And I should trust some
[insert choice Yiddish word here] instead of calling Mrs. Reisman who’s
been living next door in the same house over 35 years and [insert
choice non-sequitur: still goes for a walk every morning/always serves
my favorite grapes when we play cards/donates every month one hundred
dollars to charity]?”

Maybe she doesn’t really need search, when she’ll happily supply an
answer (in the form of a question), whether someone’s seeking an answer
or not.

My grandmother’s computer sits in her den atop a series of cabinets
that are in front of a wall of photographs. She likes having the photos
there to keep her company. I thought it was a little sad that the
computer blocked a few of the photos.

I loaded dozens of family photos onto her computer and then set her
screen saver to display them. She loved it. It’s a pretty pricey
picture frame, though, and the ones on her wall never require
rebooting.

Grandmom, we’re the stupid ones, thinking search engines have all the
answers. As smart as they are, as much as I’m crazy about them, and as
invaluable a part of my daily life as they’ve become, I’ll take your
answers over Google’s any day.

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